Are the Concepts in the Common Core New?
By Jill Jenkins
I collect old text books, a fitting hobby for a retired teacher. Over the forty years of my career I have quite a collection and some I inherited from my grandmother and my great grandmother. When you really look at what selections were in these old books it is surprising. My great grandmother’s Fifth Reader from the late 1800’s, contains rigorous selections of both fiction and nonfiction in a variety of genres. There are short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poetry by W. B. Yeats, essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and presidential speeches and one of William Shakespeare’s plays. After each selection there are study questions that ask the reader to find details from the selection to support a positon. The variety of different genres, the difficulty of each selection and the strategies in the new Core Curriculum are not all that different from this text, except this is a fifth grade text and the selections and the learning goals appear to correspond with the current ninth grade curriculum.
Why are teachers claiming the new Core Curriculum requires students to read more difficult literary selections and the rigor is overwhelming to their students? The English Language Arts Curriculum had deteriorated over the decades. When I began teaching forty years ago, the curriculum in Language Arts, or as we used to call it, English, was very similar in difficulty to the new Core Curriculum. Then adolescent literature was born. Students loved these action-packed pieces of Pablum that can be digested in one or two sittings. Why not! I loved Mad Magazine and Archie Comic books when I was a child and my parents allowed me to read all I wanted. I just couldn’t write a book report on them and get credit at school. That was still no problem. I just hoofed it to the local library, checked out a real book and read it as well. When teachers learned they no longer had to fight students to get them to read, they put away William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and handed the students S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. At first these adolescent literature books were used for grades fifth through eighth and the students still got to read the classics in high school. The standards continued to deteriorate and soon students in seventh grade were reading fourth and fifth grade books and students in high school were reading S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Finally students were actually writing book reports and getting credit for comic books, now called Graphic Novels. What a wonderful place, America is! This is beginning to remind me of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. At this rate, soon students won’t be required to read at all. Just watch the movie.
Suddenly reality set in when the United States discovered it was scoring lower on standard examinations that our friends in Europe. Now, some people are ready to throw away textbooks and novels and settle for a series of on-line reading selections with short quizzes and essay questions. Hold on there, grasshopper. That may not be what we need. Bill Gates, not really Bill himself, but the Bill Gates Foundation collected a group of outstanding educators ( I know this because one of my good friends worked with them) to develop units that incorporate all of the learning goals of the new Core Curriculum while still teaching real pieces of literature. Mind you Bill Gates and his team did not write the learning goals. That was a group of educators and their governors. The wonderful thing is they even added some ideas from the affective domain or what we used to call Character Education. This is like a blast from the past, theme based units synthesizing writing skills and reading skills and using genuine literary selections like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
Speaking only as an old English (Language Arts) teacher, before you criticize the Common Core, compare it to the Readers, textbooks, our grandparents used and the curriculum that was taught forty years ago. The Language Arts Curriculum is not that different. I suggest you look at the Gates Foundations’ Units as well, because they combine the curriculum with character education especially in the 9th and 10th grade. To those who want to toss out the great pieces of literature and depend solely on computer generated activities to teach skills, I leave you with a quote from William Butler Yeats, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."